Although the years I spent at FFS and Allynwood Academy were some of the most rewarding in my 25+ year career, there are those who remain intent on sullying the reputation of the school and myself, based on their own ignorance, unaddressed resentments and misguided anger and advocacy. It’s easy to criticize, especially without the facts – it is quite another to get involved in organizations to effect real change, as I have done. So, the purpose of this post is to address the points made by those who wish to slander myself and the role I played at FFS/Allynwood Academy. I have been a victim of on-line bullying, which has given me a new awareness and sensitivity to what young people encounter as they deal with the new age of bullying (address in other blog posts on this site).
I want to highlight, especially to those who have chosen to advocate for youth in residential programs, that we share an interest and advocacy for the ethical (and positive) treatment of youth in treatment and residential programs. The difference is that I have devoted my professional career to working directly for and on behalf of families and youth, and have often done that work from within, rather than passing judgment from a distance.
My connection with The Family Foundation School (FFS) began in 2004 after I visited the school to evaluate a student there, and I was recruited by Dr. Rita Argiros, who was at that time seeking to enhance the counseling services provided to the students. When I started there as a part-time therapist, I saw first-hand the significant struggles of the students and the practices at the school, some of which were good and positive, while others were not. I expressed my concerns about those practices. When Dr. Argiros asked me to step into the Director of Admissions role, I indicated I would do so only if I had a place at the table to implement the changes that needed to be made at the school. I am proud of the fact that during my tenure there, I was able to play an active role in eliminating many of the practices that I was not comfortable with, adding a team of licensed and appropriately credentialed therapists, including a licensed, Ph.D. psychologist as clinical director and securing Joint Commission accreditation, the recognized gold standard of healthcare and therapeutic programs. FFS was the 5th therapeutic boarding school in the country to achieve Joint Commission accreditation. These resulted in significant changes and improvements in the school’s therapeutic programming, both through eliminating the practices that we can all agree needed to be removed, and adding in clinical/therapeutic protocols based on the standards established by the Joint Commission and those recognized as best practices by SAMHSA, APA and NASW. The changes, of course, did not occur overnight, but we were progressively making these improvements and enhancements throughout my tenure. Additionally, while in the role of Director of Admissions, I obtained certification as a trauma specialist (through the National Institute for Trauma & Loss in Children) and certification as an educational planner (through American Institute of Certified Education Planners).
When Dr. Argiros asked me to step into the Director of Admissions role, she did so because she was seeking someone with advanced clinical education and experience to better match students with the program, an important first step to correct the process of accepting students that were not appropriately matched for the program. She also asked and understood that I would help change the culture at the school, and be a watchdog for practices that would be putting students at risk. Thus, my trauma certification to enhance my graduate degree in clinical psychology became extremely helpful. Although the Argiros family decided to close the school, we were at that time developing a trauma-informed staff curriculum.
To address a few of the statements made in some on-line forums that are blatantly false:
- The school’s enrollment was active even at the decision point to close. I, in fact, had a family arriving that same day and cancelled five more scheduled enrollments.
- The school was regularly audited and inspected by external parties, including state agencies, the NYS Department of Education (through whom the school had the charter to operate a school) and the Joint Commission. These reports are public record.
- When the school changed its name, it published openly, repeating and clearly that they were formerly The Family Foundation School (as I did even on this blog). There was no effort to hide under a new name. They published this fact on their web-site and published literature, and throughout the campus that we were formerly The Family Foundation School.
- The pointed attention to me personally is misguided as I had no ownership in the school. As I said, my input was heard (not always heeded) but I am proud that through my efforts as well as others, the owners did make the changes I identified above.
- The number of students in residence (boarding) at the school was intentionally lowered as standards of care and service improved. It was not possible to provide the level of care and service promised when enrollments were over 100 students (the school had 250 students at it height, a few years following my becoming admissions director). But, I advocated for a lower student census so we could provide the personal and individualized care that students needed. So, although it is often said that the school closed because enrollments dropped to 70 – that is simply not true. The school set enrollment limits not to exceed 70 students, matching with the clinical and services they had.
The Family Foundation School/Allynwood Academy serves as a great example of meaningful change that can be made improving the care and treatment of youth in residential settings. I am proud of the role I played in initiating, leading and advancing those changes.